Sunday, December 25, 2005

How about a happiness memoir?

Also in today's blog

A Celebration of Mazes
Should politicians' wives write books?
Discovering Julian Fellowes

"Harrowing, grisly, gut-wrenching... Sensational stuff! Not to be missed" was the heading on an amusing piece by Jeremy Clarke I read during the week.

Clarke wrote - "Of all the titles in the biography section, almost half can be classed as misery memoirs… After Angela's Ashes anyone "fortunate" enough to have been abused as a child booked themselves on a creative writing course and cashed in. Unbelievably grisly childhood memoirs feed an insatiable market, many so shocking that they make McCourt's upbringing seem idyllic."
He quoted two top women publishers.

"Victoria Barnsley, the chief executive of McCourt's publisher, HarperCollins, admitted this month that the "misery market" had helped the company's operating profit rise by 31 per cent this year. "People want to read terrible stories about abuse," she said. "Even celebrity memoirs now usually mention a tough childhood. It's a weird thing about the English psyche.""

"Rowena Webb, the director of non-fiction at Hodder, says: "People are less acquainted with suffering than they used to be. The attraction is to read about someone else's awful life and think, 'Thank God my life's not like that'." Was she also a bit disdainful of the misery memoir avalanche to begin with? "Yes. I did wonder about the possible voyeuristic appeal. When we published Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin, about her sexual abuse by her father, I asked myself whether we'd overstepped the mark. But it went straight in at number one on the bestseller list.""

So presumably Hodder will be overstepping the mark as often as possible in future?

Clearly I'm out of step. What I long for is a happiness memoir, the story of a life with few pains and abundant pleasures. Is there something wrong with my psyche? Or are there other people out there who find bliss more engaging than beastliness? Adrian Weston's comment on last week's blog suggests that there are.

A Celebration of Mazes

Ten days ago, I read a Daily Telegraph obituary notice about Randoll Coate "the labyrinthologist who died on December 2 aged 96, became a designer of elaborate symbolic garden mazes after retiring from the Foreign Office; there are examples of his work in Buenos Aires and at Blenheim Palace."
Being the "owner" of a fictional English stately home called Longwarden, I saved the obituary in the folder where I keep things of possible interest for future Longwarden novels. Then I went off to Amazon UK to look for Mr Coate's book A Celebration of Mazes and picked up the following details.
Paperback 80 pages (July 1986) Publisher: Redcliffe Press ISBN: 094826585X Sales Rank: 1,504,638
Next I went to The Redcliffe Press where my interest was caught by a book called Asparagus and Other Friends, 60 engravings of flowers, fruit and vegetables by Trevor Haddrell.

"This book is published in response to the enthusiasm of the many admirers and collectors of Trevor Haddrell's exquisite engravings of flower, fruit and vegetable forms.
Most of the drawings were done in the luxuriant cottage garden on the Clifton Wood hillside which the artist shares with his green-fingered partner who lovingly tends the many species of flowering plants, shrubs and trees featured in the book.
Trevor Haddrell has been influenced by the powerful wood engravings of Eric Ravilious, Clare Leighton and Gertrude Hermes, along with the work of the Japanese wood-block artists Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Several of the engravings have been selected for the annual exhibitions of the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol and for the annual touring exhibitions of the Society of Wood Engravers. One of those featured in the book was selected as the cover illustration for the 2005 wood-engravers' exhibition catalogue. 230 x 155mm 96pp ISBN 1 904537 37 5 Hardback £12.50 Published October 2005"

Should politicians' wives write books?

Last week, Stepen Bowden hit the comment button and wrote
"I'm puzzled. Rebecca West was the lover of H G Wells and a friend of G B Shaw, Ford Madox Ford and others, and is the author of one very fine novel, and several others (which I have not read) that are generally well regarded. Ffion Hague and Sandra Howard, whatever their own particular virtues, owe their prominence to the fact that they are married to former leaders of the Conservative Party, and at present neither has a single publication to her name.
Yet you suggest that it is West who is the interloper "among the great and the good of the Literary Establishment" (my emphasis), rather than these politicians' wives? I am particularly surprised, given your strong opinions on the subject of hobbyist writers venturing into romantic fiction, that you do not criticise
Sandra Howard
for choosing to do precisely that."

Stephen, I notice that your comment was posted at 6.20 a.m. and, as I know from your blog that you've been burning midnight oil recently, it would be entirely understandable if, needing a restorative cup of coffee, you read the blog rather fast.
If you have time to re-read that passage, you'll see that it was Louise Bagshawe I felt was the odd woman out. Re your point about my failure to castigate Sandra Howard for venturing into an already grossly overcrowded market, I suspect that, as born writers tend to tackle their first novels long before they reach Mrs Howard's age, the idea was suggested to her by someone else. Perhaps Michael Howard - who, I was surprised to learn, is her fourth husband - thought it would be a good way for her to pass the time while he was busy politicking. When the two novels she has written come out towards the end of next year, I'll ask for review copies and blog my opinion of them.

Discovering Julian Fellowes

How could I have missed Julian Fellowes' novel Snobs published in 2004 and paperbacked earlier this year? Somehow none of the reviews came my way - or, if they did, they didn't stick in my mind - and no one I know seems to have read it.

Luckily, the other morning, my eye was caught by an item under Features on the front page of the online edition of a UK broadsheet which led to a diary of Mr Fellowes' week where I read
"A day trip to Dean Close School in Cheltenham, to talk to the pupils. School visits are something I do fairly often: I always say to the students that somebody has got to end up with the interesting careers, so why not them? I hate to think of people who all their lives were burning to be a writer or performer, but didn't come from a background that gave them the necessary ropes and ladders."

That was enough to make me warm to Mr Fellowes and read on
"The book's been sold to all sorts of foreign countries - quite what the Lithuanians will make of Lady Uckfield is a mystery to me. It's been a completely jolly adventure: I'd never written a novel before, but I haven't a nasty word to say about the whole experience. Later I drove back to Dorset for a welcome few days of work. The writing process is fairly laborious, but the great thing is not to wait until you're in the mood, or you'll be dead before you've written a word."

Both Book Reporter and Saga magazine have interesting pieces about Julian Fellowes. The Saga piece starts
"As a jobbing actor, Julian Fellowes spent most of his life playing nasty vicars and fat bankers. But suddenly he’s hot. Publishers and producers are scrambling at his feet and he has both a novel and a film he has written and directed coming out this year. This is what winning an Oscar can do for you.
And I found the following review at
Amazon UK.
"I was expecting something frothy with a few pithy insights into a world that is largely opaque to most of us. I didn't expect such a well written, insightful novel with characters that even when at their worst are engaging. Perhaps because they demonstrate an insight into their own motives and the costs and benefits of their actions that makes them believable and sympathetic. Neither Wilde nor Mitford nor Waugh it stands its own as a classic study in the slow decline of the upper classes and their attempts to repel social climbers boarding their sinking gilded ship. Lady Uckfield alone is a classic character. A book I was sad to finish as I was so much enjoying reading it. I can't wait for the movie or tv series presumably written and starring Mr Fellowes himself as the narrator is clearly based on himself."